Victory! That winning feeling returned for Manchester United in a superb 3-0 demolition of a poor Leicester City side now seriously flirting with relegation, as Henrikh Mkhitaryan led the destruction of the Premier League Champion Foxes.
Goals from Mkhitaryan, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Juan Mata put Leicester away, and United were vastly improved from some recently poor performances. Jose Mourinho switched from three central midfielders to two and it worked, and Eric Bailly returned to the centre of defence to help solidify the defensive setup.
United are back on the shoulder of the top four, has the run in now begun?
Mkhitaryan Returns To Form
The Armenian destroyer had been quiet in recent games, but an extra attacker in the team appeared to bring him and the rest of the team to life. The passing was swift, and after a slow start it was Mkhitaryan took charge of the game and put United in the lead with a good finish past Kasper Schmeichel.
He made the space in behind Ibrahimovic his own, dominating the Foxes defence with his tricky runs and clever movement, and his combinations with Mata were a joy to watch as they tore the game open including for Mata’s game sealing goal.
The return to form was timely, as he’d struggled in recent weeks. He is not the kind of player to carry an attack, but when United get the balance of their team right he seems to be central to everything they do. Mourinho should take note.
Mata Comes Through
Juan Mata had a strange day in the Midlands, where he was nearly (and perhaps should have been) sent off, took the Leicester defence apart with expert link up play which later led to his goal for the day early in the second half, and then finished off by missing an easy chance late on he probably should have scored. Nevertheless, Mata was pivotal.
Week by week Mata makes himself more and more important to the cause at Old Trafford, and the team appears to be better going forward when he and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are working together in the forward line. As previously mentioned neither is suited to leading an attack solo, and perhaps they are best as a duet.
Did anyone see this coming in preseason? It’s unlikely there were many. Mata is fundamental to Mourinho going forward.
Ibra Returns To Prominence
Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a barnstorming outing on Sunday night, and was everywhere for United in both defence and attack. He was clearing the ball by air with superb headers, leading the line and of course added to his season tally with a timed finish on a cross from Antonio Valencia, who himself was strong again.
Like the rest of the side Ibrahimovic has not quite been himself, and questions began to arise whether despite his goals could the United attack be limited overall with the Swede in it. He continues to silence those claims though, and whilst Marcus Rashford needs to play more centrally that’s a good problem for Mourinho to have.
It still baffles that Ibrahimovic arrived at United for absolutely nothing. Incredible.
Foxes Kept Quiet
David De Gea was given next to nothing to do on Sunday, and for the most part was a mere spectator as his defence did superbly protecting the world’s best goalkeeper. Eric Bailly was a welcome addition to the backline, and fitted in very well alongside Antonio Valencia, Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo.
Rojo put in a good display on the left, a position he is usually uncomfortable in. He was withdrawn at the half, likely because of an awkward fall he took. Daley Blind took his place and did well in the second half, and the full backs good displays allowed Mkhitaryan, Mata and Marcus Rashford to attack at will.
It was also Chris Smalling’s best display in a while, and he looked far more comfortable than in recent weeks. He’ll want that to continue, as he fights for his future and his spot alongside Bailly long term as a potential defensive partner.
Back In The Race
They’re not far away now, you know. Manchester United have finally put in a real claim to rejoin the top four and beyond race, finally capitalising on the struggles of their rivals. Arsenal and Liverpool both lost, while Manchester City barely escaped with a win against Swansea City.
Chelsea right now are out of sight, but the rest are still in play. It is all to play for, but Manchester United cannot afford more stumbles in the league. They’ll have to win their share of six pointers but the hope is there, and this was a glimpse of a more confident United side.
Get ready for the toughest run in United have ever had, the top four race has never been tighter.